The View from h2g2 covers the site's progress in approving new entries for the Edited Guide. It also provides tips for writing and navigating through the editorial process at h2g2, as well as gossip about past and future changes to the site.
H2G2 is Dead! Long Live H2G2!
It's only appropriate to spend this week's column reviewing h2g2's outage and its subsequent resurrection as a division of BBC Online. The h2g2 we see today looks similar to the one we left behind, but there are noticeable differences too.
Notes for Newcomers
Since it is likely we are getting (and will continue to get) new users trickling in from the main BBC site, a quick look at h2g2 as a whole is in order. Members around before the switch can feel free to skip over this bit.
It begins with a series of books, The Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy, written by British author Douglas Adams. The books contain enough cult science fiction, humor, and general wierdness to have endeared themselves to people throughout the world. The books include numerous mentions of a sci-fi guide to the universe which contains both practical information and telling satire.
So it helps to understand that h2g2 was (and is) an attempt to create this guide to everything on our world and in our time. By leveraging volunteers and the power of the internet, this site has collected thousands of entries on subjects that range from the highly intelligent, to the seemingly mundane, to the satirically hilarious. Part of what makes h2g2 wonderful is that you can comment on everything you read immediately, offering feedback or additional information.
Before long at all, group commentary about articles in h2g2's Guide segued into more personal conversations. Groups formed around certain topics of interest like astronomy or literature, and others formed simply to while away the quiet spaces in people's lives. Many Researchers discuss their daily goings on here in their journals, and some live very rich virtual lives on pages which maintain virtual identities as beaches, parks, pubs, coffee houses, and so forth. For some, the h2g2 Community has become the primary interest here and the Guide itself is now a sideline issue.
This column focuses on the Guide. While anyone can contribute an entry by clicking a button on their user page, there is a more formal process in which your entry can be approved for selection, carefully Edited, and featured on h2g2's main page. This involves a lot of sticky business in h2g2's Peer Review forum and beyond, and again volunteers do the huge majority of work. If you are interested in this, you might want to check out previous Views for more information.
That's the short and skinny on h2g2! You'll have to browse around and learn the rest. While you are here, please remember that h2g2 is a friendly and polite community. You will be better received if you are polite as well, and if you read and respect the rules at any Community locations you may visit.
Oh, yes! Since h2g2 was begun by Adams' wonderful book, you will find many people make references to the characters and ideas inside it. In particular, there are many references to fish because the books include the Babel fish, a marvelous animal that translates all languages for you if you are only willing to stick it in your ear.
People can add fish to their conversations the same way they can add a happy or sad smiley, and old site users prefer the Classic Goo skin partly because its blue background is healthier for their imaginary fish. To see what Classic Goo looks like, type '?skin=classic' at the end of the URL for this page. You can change to Goo permanently by clicking on the Preferences button.
A Brief History of Rupert
About a week before h2g2 was removed from the internet, all advertising to outside companies mysteriously disappeared. Since this was h2g2's main source of income before, this prompted questions from a few Researchers. But before a firm answer for the change could come down the pipeline, h2g2 had been yanked unceremoniously offline.
The Italics1 left an apology and urged us to wait for the site to return. No other explanation was given, but an Egroups list was set up to help h2g2's members stay in touch. Of course, the instant result of this was a huge barrage of rumours. It was variously conjectured that h2g2 was out of funding, that it hadn't paid its employees, and that it was being bought out by Disney, Bill Gates, or any number of other potential buyers.
Just as the conjecture was flying highest, Egroups announced that it had merged with Yahoo! This caused some wild havoc, as accounts from Egroups had to be converted to Yahoo! accounts. Of course, now some people were sure that Yahoo! was the real buyer of h2g2. You can see the remnants of this and other related discussions at Yahoo!/Egroups 'h2g2 Chat if you have a Yahoo! account. Also interesting are the polls created by Researchers to pass the time, and the links to various 'refugee' pages Researchers created to house their h2g2 identities during the downtime.
Some people disliked the Egroups/Yahoo! experience and sought one closer to h2g2's system for conversations. So a Temporary (and unofficial) h2g2 Board was put into motion as well. The EZBoard system was even used to create a Goo area for old-time users missing their deep blue pages.
While much has been made of the fact that many Researchers were forced to deal with real life briefly during the outage, it can quickly be surmised that many others found creative ways to avoid this altogether. The outage was obsessed over during its reign, and is still receiving much discussion here. When asked to create a community name for the outage, we decided to call it... Rupert.
Under the Arm of Auntie Beeb
About halfway through Rupert, h2g2's Italics informed us that the site was going to become part of BBC Online. Since the BBC is tasked with setting aside a certain percentage of its budget on free entertainment and information, this would allow h2g2 to return free from advertising and any worries about future funding. The BBC, meanwhile, would inherit a fully developed internet community housed around a bold concept by a popular British author.
While most originally agreed that this was a good deal all around, some were surprised by the site changes that greeted them upon their return. Some worry that Auntie Beeb will overshadow the smaller h2g2, and the initial changes in policy are the start of a long journey in which h2g2 will lose its marvelous identity.
There are, of course, places to discuss the changes. There is the Talking Point page on the Move to the BBC. And a good place for suggestions and serious concerns might be the Project Feedback page specifically set up for concerns about the h2g2/BBC merger and branding.
Today's Big Concern: Moderation
The single biggest issue of concern today is Moderation at h2g2. Previously, any commentary under the sun was allowed. In a few cases, Researchers have taken offense at crude language, personal attacks, or vividly adult content at the site. There was always the option of reporting this to the Italics, who would typically remove the offending material.
Some areas of h2g2 maintained a more formal tone, while others maintained relaxed adult atmospheres where the occasional swear word or crazy rant was expected. In general, h2g2's policies reflected the fact that offensive material could be removed at any time. But this was rarely needed. The h2g2 Community was wildly successful at instilling its members with good conversational ethics, and the simple result of social acceptance or disgrace was enough to steer most new members towards politeness.
But this has changed due to BBC concerns and policies. BBC Online employs Moderators to review all user-generated pages and discussions for material that violates the site's terms of service. Instead of passively waiting for complaints, the idea is to actively patrol content before anyone gets a chance to become offended. Offensive comment is typically replaced with notification of the content's removal. Since the primary method for this in conversation forums is the use of square brackets to denote Moderation, h2g2 Researchers are now calling the Moderators squacks2. The reason for all this Moderation is simple. The BBC fears law suits from angry internet surfers.
This seems wildly unusual to me, but perhaps this is because I am American. Here, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 specifically gives service providers like BBC Online a legal shield against law suits regarding content the site does not patrol or edit. American companies successfully argued to legislators that active content regulation is financially impossible when dealing with thousands or millions of chatting users. Ironically, American companies are subject to law suits if, and only if, they monitor and censor their users routinely. Legal interpretation holds that censored content has ipso facto been validated by the company and is therefore culpable.
In the UK, however, this legal distinction has not been made. As a result, online companies are potential targets for frivolous law suits that would be expensive even if won. Perhaps it is understandable that the BBC is more concerned with law suits at home than they are with the possibility that the rare litigious American will wage an international law suit. After all, BBC Online views its audience (for better or worse) as primarily UK citizens.
Or is it Censorship?
It has been argued by some old-time users of h2g2 that the BBC has gone overboard in protecting itself. The new regime is reducing Researchers' ability to express themselves in a number of ways. The concern among site members is so widespread that a page has been added on what moderation is and how it works. I highly recommend this page if you haven't seen it. It clarifies things a great deal.
Things that have received some level of censorship, ranging from temporary to permanent, are:
Links to web pages outside BBC Online from within forum conversations3
Graphics or photographs from sources other than h2g2 itself
Entries and discussions conducted in languages other than English
Quotations on user pages and in entries which do not receive review or commentary
Several swear words
Politics dissent within h2g2's supposedly Italics-independent Post, at least for the short term, and
All Guide entries created before Rupert which have not yet been reviewed by BBC Online Moderators and have not been updated by their creators since Rupert ended.
Many people don't like calling this censorship. On face value, the site's terms of service haven't changed much. Inconveniences due to the change are frequently viewed as temporary. And since the Community is so polite and empathetic towards one another, we feel a common goal in keeping everyone happy here. But on another level, h2g2 is about building a Guide to everything. It is difficult to do this when certain content is placed off limits. While some issues like the removal of outside photographs are accepted by most, other changes like the inability to link elsewhere in conversations have received less respect overall.
Part of the frustration is that the Moderation process is unfamiliar, and unlike anything most users have experienced elsewhere online. Throughout most of the internet, the American model of little to no censorship reigns supreme. So people are surprised that content might be taken down while it is under review for violating the House Rules. For some people, even temporary removal is seen as a form of censorship. And it is especially troubling censorship if the author is later cleared of wrongdoing.
It also doesn't help that many old Guide entries are currently censored because they have not been reviewed yet. Some authors aren't aware that they can simply 'Update' their Entry to get the content back online. So there are complaints about censorship that are based on ignorance.
Finally, some people view active censorship as a challenge. They feel a prurient desire to violate the censorship rules, sometimes in creative ways, to see what they can and can't get away with. This is no different from a toddler who must challenge his or her parents to understand the difference between how the rules are given and how they are actually enforced. Some such creative rule breakers want nothing more than to cry wolf and raise banners to end censorship, when they do not have any real concerns beyond a general fear that they might be censored for more legitimate content at a later time.
A Practical Guide to Dealing With Moderation
If any of your content is 'hidden, pending Moderation'5 and you feel you are in the right, you should first try a post to the Moderation Help Desk. Just in case that doesn't work, you should consider contacting prominent Italics like Abi, Peta, and Mark Moxon. But please note that Mark and Peta have gone on much-needed vacations this past week, and Abi is understandably feeling a bit overworked.
Please supress any inner urge to annoy the Moderators by flagrantly violating the site's House Rules. It wouldn't be right if h2g2 became a rude place because too many people couldn't resist the urge to act like curious toddlers. And please don't raise hideous specters of censorship based on ignorance or blind fear. If you want to protest censorship, get informed first so you can do it in a calm and intelligent manner.
If you simply can't handle the shadow of Moderation above your door, I'm afraid your only options are to tough it out or leave h2g2. Toughing it out could get easier or harder in the future, depending on the Beeb's reaction to our open concern over free speech. If you do leave, please leave a polite note behind explaining your decision. I'm sure the Italics will want to keep track of any defections caused when people can't adjust to the Moderation system.
If you'd like to discuss or complain about Moderation, I recommend the Community Soapbox. But for a diehard but inventive advocation for free speech at h2g2, you could also check out the Zaphodista Army of Cybernautic Liberation. You'll know what to expect when I tell you that the motto for the page is, 'THE REVOLUTION WILL NOT BE TELE-TUBBIED!'
During Rupert, I took on a more demanding college schedule. Since I expect this to continue through the next quarter's classes, I'm giving notice now that this column may not stay entirely regular. Also, the Peer Review review process called Project Spy that was previously featured will have to be suspended until I can account for all the volunteers who were helping me before.
Meanwhile, this column will be keeping a steady eye on the changes at h2g2. Next time, we'll head back to a look at the Peer Review process for creating Edited Entries. Since Rupert ended, the Peer Review page has consistently been one of the busiest forums at h2g2. A lot of people have written great entries during the downtime, and I'll discuss the effects of this in the next column.
Opinions expressed in this column are my own, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of h2g2, BBC Online, or the Post.